Sad crying little boy covers his face with hands

Igor Stepovik

For years, I have been at odds with my mother. I have always maintained that if you, say, inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, you ought to feel badly about it. My mother thinks it’s feel bad. She elaborates that if you feel badly, you have a poor sense of touch. I argue that feel is a verb regardless. So it goes. Back and forth. And everybody I ask not only has a different answer, but a different explanation for that answer.

So I had to end it. It was time to bring the mountain to Mohammad: I emailed Richard Lederer, one of our country’s foremost grammarians, as well as the author of dozens of books on the subject, including the hilarious Anguished English. He also was my husband’s English teacher at St. Paul’s School. Here is what he had to say:

The adjective BAD, meaning “unpleasant, unattractive, unfavorable, spoiled, etc.,” is the usual form following such linking verbs as look, smell, sound, and taste: After the rainstorm, the water tasted bad. The contents of the refrigerator smell bad. After the linking verb feel, BAD is the most common adjective, although feel badly is frequently seen and heard, especially with the meaning of “I regret:” I feel badly that I let you down. Although this represents an admirable attempt to differentiate physical ill being (I feel bad) from emotional ill being (I feel badly), much in the manner of I feel good vs. I feel well, feel badly has been criticized for more than a century. Ask the offended why they object, and their voices will slip into the tonal groove that the century-old explanation has worn for itself: “If you feel badly, your finger tips must be numbed, or you’re wearing thick gloves.” Har har—but for a great number of people this disapproval is very real. You might attempt to explain to the finger waggers that the ‘badly’ in ‘feel badly’ is not an adverb but an adjective, in the manner of costly, elderly, friendly, kindly, sickly, and more than a hundred other adjectives that wag–‘ly’ tails, and they will still feel strongly (ahem!) that feel badly is somehow wrongheaded. That’s in part because BADLY is not a fully integrated adjective: If you are sickly, you are a sickly person, but if you feel badly, you are not a badly person. At this juncture in the winding way our language travels, you will communicate more effectively if you feel bad, rather than badly.

So there you have it. My mother was right, but not for the reason she thought she was right. So ha, take that. I was wrong—but I don’t feel bad about it.

More Tangential Thinker articles.